PAWTUCKET—Pawtucket Police have recently come upon a phenomenon involving older model stolen vehicles and apparent cases of ownership fraud somehow slipping through the state's Department of Motor Vehicles registration system.
According to Police Chief Paul King, within the past six months or so, about a dozen cars that city residents have purchased off of private owners have turned out to be stolen, unbeknownst to the new owner. The issue, it seems, is that for cars older than 2000 models, no title is required to register the vehicle in Rhode Island.
In all of these cases, the unsuspecting owner met with a seller who simply forged a bill of sale, which the new owner then took to the Rhode Island DMV and received a registration and license plate, King said. In some of the cases, the vehicles had been purchased through an on-line seller such as Craig's List. Since people leave their registration information inside their vehicle, the car thief has access to the name and address of whoever actually owned the vehicle and signs that person's name to a bill of sale.
“It used to be that when an older model car was stolen from the city, it was usually taken for a joy ride and later it would be dumped somewhere,” said King. “But, we've found recently that many of these cars are not being recovered. Many are showing up as being re-registered by the state to someone else, and the new owner isn't even aware that the vehicle had been stolen.”
According to the RI DMV's website, Rhode Island does not title vehicles model year 2000 and older. In order to obtain documentation in lieu of a title, the new owner of a vehicle must show a bill of sale, identification, an application for registration and/or driver license information, and pay a fee of $11.50. This is different than in neighboring Massachusetts, where a title is always required in order to register a vehicle, no matter what the age of the car, noted King.
Additionally, in Rhode Island, a check of the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is only required for vehicles 2001 or newer, or if the title is from another state or the vehicle was registered in another state.
King added that older model cars are also frequently targeted by thieves because many lack ignition locks and other modern anti-theft devices that are installed in newer vehicles. He said that the owners of older model cars should be diligent about using “The Club” steering wheel lock device or some similar anti-theft device.
King said that in most of these cases, police could not trace the car thief. Several of the victims told police they had agreed to meet the seller outside a house or apartment and had no reason to believe that the seller was not the person who owned the vehicle. “So there's usually no paper trail,” said King.
In one case, a city resident reported his car stolen in Pawtucket and it was later purchased off Craig's List by a woman for her son, who then drove it to his home in Florida. When State Police detectives finally traced the car to Florida, both the woman and her son were surprised to find out it was a “hot” car.
King credits Doreen Castro, who has assumed the job of records validator for the Police Department's National Crime Information System (NCIS), for discovering that many of the city's stolen cars had been re-registered at the DMV. It is her job to enter the VIN of all cars reported as stolen, but if the vehicle is found registered to someone other than the original owner, that sets off a 'red flag,' she said.
Castro said she has found a dozen or so cars that were reported as stolen in Pawtucket and were then found re-registered to someone other than the victim. One of the stolen vehicles had been re-registered twice to different owners before it was found abandoned in Cranston.
Castro said that once a car has been re-registered to a new plate, it won't come up as stolen in the database system. Stolen cars can also be identified by the VIN numbers, but many times, patrol officers just run the license plate to check for ownership, she said. Checking the VIN would be an added step.
King noted that if Pawtucket has found this many stolen vehicle that have been sold to and registered by someone else, he can only imagine the number there are in a larger city such as Providence. “And we have a lot of older model cars here in the city. I want people to be aware of what is going on,” he said.
When asked about the matter, Debbie Rich, a spokeswoman for the RI DMV, said that the DMV follows state laws addressing VIN checks and issuing titles for vehicles.
Rich added that “buyers should do their due diligence and take any vehicle to a mechanic of their own choice or pull a Car Fax prior to buying it. If suspicious about a vehicle, prospective buyers may also ask their local police department to run a Vehicle Identification check to give them peace of mind.”
Tony Pires, director of administration and public safety officer for Pawtucket, said the issue involving older model vehicles appears to be a 'Catch 22' situation and one that probably should be addressed though the state legislature. “It is our intent to go to the legislature and discuss what we can do to address this issue involving titles. There should be some means to resolve this problem,” he said.
Pires added that the Police Department recently found 60 unused steering wheel locking devices, 24 fitted for SUVs and 36 for regular sized cars, which will soon be distributed to residents free (while supplies last). He said he wants the anti-theft clubs to go to the owners of older model vehicles, and, although the details are still being worked out, they will likely be made available on a first come, first served basis.
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